Wahhabism: Its Foundations and Dangers
05 Jan, 2009
What is Wahhabism? This is a fundamental question that arises in
the minds of those who are not fully acquainted with the nuances of
this cult within the cult of Islam. Wahhabism is Islam personified
in today’s age. Wahhabism is reiterates the same philosophy which
the Prophet of Islam had brought about to the 1400 years ago. The
philosophy of the Superiority of the Arabs. Before we proceed
further, let us understand what Wahhabism is not about. Wahhabism is
not about religion, its not about spirituality or God, it is about
the superiority of the Arabs over all other nations. I have tried to
bring forth the character and the personality of the Prophet of this
sub-cult and his mentor Abdullah Ibn Sa’ud. It is extremely
important that we know, who the founding fathers of this cult were,
in order to understand the cult itself. It is simply because, it is
important to go through the mind of the leader before examining the
cult. Just like no study of Islam is complete without studying
Prophet Muhammad, the study of Wahhabism is incomplete without
studying its founding father.
Conditions in Arabia at the advent of Wahhabism
Wahhabism has its origins in the Arabian Desert, which, from time immemorial, has been the haunt of highwaymen and nomads, who tolerated no rule or social organization other than their own ancestral systems. Even the so-called brotherhood of Islam could only temporarily combine them into unstable groups to unite for a raid or plunder. The Bedouins continued their blood feuds, and their history remained practically the same continuing story of tribal jealousy and, consequent as before, the advent of Muhammad and the subsequent spread of his Cult. As it was the duty of the Caliph to safeguard the passage to the cities of Mecca and Medina, the Western Coast routes were more or less under his control. The Ottomans, as holders of the Caliphate on no other right than being the most powerful Muhammadan ruler, essentially maintained their authority for the protection of the holy cities and the pilgrimage routes. In every other aspect, Arabia remained practically independent of the Turkish Government. The Sharifs of Mecca, who possessed a nominal ecclesiastic sovereignty, were as powerless politically as the Turkish Government, and were unable to control the tribes.
The inhabitants of the towns or Oasis mostly belonged to the most conservative and rigid of the four orthodox Sunni Schools of Islam, that of Ibn Hanbal, while the East-Arabia sheltered some Shafi'ites, the coast of Kuwait some Malakites, and some coasts of the East even some Shiites, who were the remnant of the Qarmatian sects. Economically, the entire country was destitute. Not even a slowly increasing population could thrive on its soil, and a constant efflux into Mesopotamia and Syria just served to keep the remainder practically on the borderline of starvation.
The economic as well as social conditions in Arabia had remained practically unchanged since the time of Muhammad.
Understanding Ibn Abdul Wahab
In Arabia, any historian has the rare opportunity to study the original social conditions petrified in their natural surroundings, as time seems to have slumbered into the desert. Modern Arab history is simply a mirage reflected from its past. In the last century or so, Arab nationalism has found expression in the revived Islamic doctrines of Ibn Taymmiyaa, from which Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703–91) drew his inspiration.
Ibn Abdul Wahhab was born at Uyanina, a small town in Najd. His father’s name, incidentally was a Hamabalite Ulema and far from being in accord with the teachings of his son, gave the appellation to the movement called Wahhabism. Wahhabi is more or less a nickname in Arabia; the Arabs like to call themselves Muwahhidun or monotheists; they believe that they practice monotheism in the purest form.
Muhammad went through the usual curriculum of Islamic studies. He probably developed his enthusiasm for the teachings of Ibn Taymiya at Medina, where he lived for some time. After the death of his father in 1740, he started to preach his doctrines publicly. He railed against the system of offering homage to human beings and to their graves. He reproached mysticism for its indifference to the law of the Prophet. The veneration of saints in any form was an abomination for him. He did not recognize the consent of human authority in any form.
He preached for the return to the two sources of Islam: “the Quran and the primitive Sunnah”. He said, “Ye have the book (Quran) and sunnah, study the word of God and act according to it even if the majority disagrees with you.” He proscribed all speculative explanations in exegesis and jurisprudence and adhered, like the Zahirites, to the literal sense of the Quran and the Hadith. He rejected all innovations by which Islam had tried to adapt itself to the changing conditions, and waged an implacable war against the laxities, introduced by the mundane spirit, at the cost of primitive austerity.
The teachings of Ibn Abul Wahhab roused anxiety even amongst the Hanbalites of Arabia. The pious conservative probably sympathized with the tendency of his doctrines, but his insistence on the practice of the puritan tenets frightened those, who indulged in daily transgressions.
In 1744, owing to the persecution of the ulemas, he was forced to seek refuge in Darriya, in the house of the Amir Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud. From this time, the theological controversy entered on to the political sphere. Ibn Sa’ud agreed to become his patron and concluded a pact with him. The religious propagandist had now gained the support of an executive authority (asab us-seyf) behind him. Those, who believed on their account, were invited to defend the faith; those, who hesitated, were brought over by the prospect of booty; those, who resisted, were forced by intimidation. The blood-feuds of the Bedouins were forbidden or restrained, and their restless energy was directed against the Kafirs; at least, those, whom Ibn Sa’ud and the Wahhabis regarded as such.
This new movement proceeded on parallel lines to its predecessor’s of the 7th century. No other line of advantage was possible. In accordance with the Wahhabi doctrine, which solely followed the actions of the Prophet of Islam, the state extracted one-fifth of the booty, and also collected the Zakat from the believers. It converted the inhabitants of the rebellious province of Kasim into tenants on the principle of kharadj.
The Arabia of the 7th century was, thus, revived again. The state
was based on the army, and this had to be kept busy to secure
maintenance. The nomads of Arabia, always eager to join promising
movements, got interested in Wahhabism, and the prospect of booty
soon attracted the Bedouins of Central and East Arabia to the camp
of Sa’ud. Towards the end of the 18th century, Sa’ud and his
Wahhabis became the greatest power in the peninsula. They started
harassing the pilgrims to Mecca, and robbing them of Sultan's
presents, in the same way that the Prophet of Islam had in his early
days of Prophethood. Then they attacked the Shia communities at
Nadjaf and Karbala, just like Muhammad used to attack the Jewish
communities. History repeated itself even into the minutest details.
The iconoclastic zeal of the Wahhabis destroyed the mausoleums and
cupolas erected over the graves, and removed the heavily embroidered
silk carpets of the Kaaba. In Medina, Muhammad’s tomb was robbed of
its treasures hoarded through the centuries. The ulema, cowed by the
Tafkir, were powerless against these vandalisms. The Wahhabis
continued to rob the pilgrims, forcing the Hajj to be suspended
Decline and rise of Wahhabism
Encouraged by the uncharted success, hordes of Arabs pressed northwards into Syria and Mesopotamia. The Ottomans were powerless against Sa’ud, they were forced to entrust the pacification of the Arabia to the Pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. It was not an easy task. Desert warfare had proved difficult even for the the best organized armies. The campaign of the Egyptians resulted in severe reverses, until they took recourse of more glittering weapons than swords. Money was set rolling among the Bedouins, who, as in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, had greater faith in gold than in sacred doctrines. The capital of Abdullah Sa’ud at Darriya was stormed in 1818; the Amir and some leaders of the Wahhabis were taken prisoners and sent to Constantinople, where they were executed.
This was a hard blow to Wahhabism. The family of Sa’ud first retired to Riyadh, then to Kuwait on the Persian gulf, as they could not withstand the rivalry of their former foes, the Ibn Rasheed of Mount Shammar.
The extension of the political influence of Germany over Turkey, which found its economic expression in the building of the Baghdad railway stretching out its feelers towards the Persian gulf, created a new situation. The British Government was looking for new allies in Arabia against the Turko-Germanic alliance. In the 6th century, the situation had been exactly similar. The Byzantines stationed the Ghasanides in Syria as buffers against the Laskmides of Hira who were feudatories of the Sassanians. These two Arab dynasties remained in a continual conflict; they won and lost battles exactly as what was going to happen again. In a similar vein, fights had been going on between the Rasheedis and the Sa’uds. In the beginning, the Rasheedis had gained an important advantage. But later on, the Sa’uds invented a very efficient stratagem. He established several camps at important spots, where he assembled his Bedouins and drilled them in the rigid doctrine of wahhabism, and also taught them the art of agriculture. He formed a brotherhood of reliable and trustworthy elements to serve as a nucleus for the fresh organization. The Turks, weakened by their defeat in the Balkan war, were obliged to maintain a passive attitude in Arabia. Long before the marcia su Roma, the Wahhabi fiasco was created. They had their national pride, their rigid national creed devoid of all influences of foreign origin, and a national esprit se corps, which acknowledged implicit obedience to one idea, to one master. They even had their own distinct uniform—a counterpart to the black-shirts of Mussolini: a white garment and a white turban.
The brotherhood of the Wahhabis, know as the Ukhuwwat, was a military organization ready to strike at any moment. Characteristically like the first communities of Islam, the Ukhuwwat does not recognize tribal organization. It is an organization of the Arabs, irrespective of tribal adherence, guided by the ideals of Islam.
The shrewdness of Sa’ud, just like that of Prophet Muhammad,
helped realize his coveted fruits. In 1921, he defeated his old
rival Ibn Rasheed, and massacred his family. In 1924, he
victoriously entered Taif and Mecca from where Hussain Ibn Ali the
sheriff and Caliph had fled. The kingdom of Hijaz ceased to exist. A
new sultanate, that of Sa’ud, an independent Arabic state, stepped
on t the stage of history, known as Saudi Arabia today.
After effects and conclusion
The stringency of Wahhabism—in matters religion, national outlook and attitude towards foreign politics—found many adherents abroad. In India and Pakistan, the Salafiya (conservatives) and the Ahle Hadith (traditionalists) were more or less inspired by the Wahhabite tendencies. It helped them keep the Muslims away from secular education.
Wahhabism is a militant state. It could not remain satisfied with its achievements. In order to enlarge the status that it enjoyed in the Muslim world, it had to expand its economic boundaries. We see this influence today, as Wahhabi Saudi Arabia exports its citizens, sets up Islamic chairs in Western universities, sets up Madarssas in South and Southeast Asia. These are all ways and means to expand it. With the advent of the age of petroleum, the militant tendency of Islam, which today manifests through Wahhabism, has got the most important tool to spread itself all over the world. If the world does not recognize the threat that this menacing ideology presents to humankind, we might yet face another World War.
Ibrahim Lone is Kashmir-born ex-Muslim.